Background to the formation of the South African National Students Congress (SANSCO)

The emergence of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and the adoption of its philosophy by the youth and students added a dimension to the struggle against Apartheid that changed political landscape in South Africa.  Students founded the South African Student Organisation (SASO) which became a vehicle through which the BCM propagated its ideas. Concerned by SASO’s influence particularly after the June 16 1976 Uprising, SASO was banned in October 1977 and this deprived black higher education students of a political student organisation.

In 1978, about 400 women students at the University of Zululand boycotted classes against the expulsion of a pregnant student.  For almost a period of two years this gap was unfilled and in 1979 a new student’s structure, the Azanian Student Organisation was constituted to fill the gap. The decision to form AZASO was taken at an Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO) conference held in September 1979. An Interim Committee (IC) was elected by students. Their duty was to prepare for the launch of a national student organisation.

On 23 November the new structure, AZASO was established by students from five black universities; Fort Hare, Zululand, Natal, University of the North and Durban-Westville universities as well as Mapumulo college. According to Dr. Saleem Badat, mandated delegates who attended the inauguration were from just two institutions; University of Fort Hare and University of the North. AZASO, which was formed under Tom Nkoane, initially emerged as a continuation SASO which was still a banned organization. Thus, AZASO was initially aligned to the BCM and AZAPO. Between its formation and 1986 AZASO grew and was represented in 67 institutions.

However, this changed as some leaders in the organisation began adopting African National Congress (ANC) policies and the Freedom Charter over the Black Consciousness philosophy. First tension emerged between AZASO and AZAPO after the suspension of AZAPO president, Curtis Nkondo after he was accused of violating the policy and protocol. 

Launching of SANSCO

AZASO become increasingly aloof from its BCM origins and sought to change by forming a new organisation or renaming the existing one that represents adherence to the Freedom Charter and the congress movement. Consequently, AZASO was renamed the South African National Students Congress (SANSCO) in 1986. SANSCO became an integral component of the broad mass democratic movement in South Africa. Amongst the SANSCO leadership was Joe Phaahla, Reveal Nkondo and others.

The 1980s decade saw a wave of schools boycott. On 28 May 1980 the schools boycott spread to the Black townships. In Durban and Port Elizabeth riot police were called in. At Elsies River, near Cape Town, police fired on Coloured children, killing two and wounding three. During this period, SANSCO strengthen its working relationship with the Congress of South African Students (COSAS), which was also established in 1979 as a national organization to represent the interests of Black school students in the wake of the Soweto uprisings.

Students marching to a funeral of COSAS member in KwaMashu, KwaZulu Natala, 1981. Photographer: Omar Badsha

A year before the renaming to SANSCO, on 25 July 1985, President PW Botha declared a state of emergency in 36 of the country’s 260 magisterial districts. Within the first six months of the Emergency, 575 people were killed in political violence – more than half killed by the police. Under the provisions of the Emergency, organisations could be banned and meetings prohibited; the Commissioner of Police could impose restrictions on media coverage of the Emergency; and the names of detained people could not be disclosed. On 5 March 1986 Botha announced that he would lift the Emergency, and on 7 March the announcement was made law.

In 1987 SANSCO called for the transformation of tertiary institutions into 'Peoples' Campuses' and called for formation of committees of peoples' power at all levels. Including, the SRC through to hostel and floor committees, faculty councils, class committees, as well as sports and cultural committees. These structures that had their parallel in the street committees, people’s courts and the like, were seen as the foundations of people’s power and democratic control of campuses. On 1 April 1987 NUSAS and SANSCO jointly launched a campaign calling for one man, one vote.

SANSCO closely co-operated with National Union of South African Student's (NUSAS), against De Klerk's Education Bill that intended to reduce subsidies to politically active Universities. In February 1988, government banned a wide range of organizations including the United Democratic Front (UDF) and SASNCO. By this time there was increasing joint action by both SANSCO and NUSAS, recognizing the need for a single national student organization to articulate student aspirations. Thus, despite unequal facilities, racist white lecturers, conservative university administrations, police and army invasion of campuses, student struggles were largely shaped by events in schools and communities around them.

Merger and Transition to SASCO

In December 1990 both NUSASand SANSCO held their respective annual congresses where Steven Silver of Wits and Mike Koyana of the University of the Western Cape were elected president of NUSAS and SANSCO respectively. At the joint session of NUSAS and SANSCO, ANC leader, Nelson Mandela said that the success that NUSAS and SANSCO achieved in forging unity among the students of South Africa will be a major contribution to national unity. NUSAS President Steven Silver stated that

“The conditions are now ripe for the launch of the new organisation. Non racialism, which recognises the divisions created by apartheid and the need to work to work together to end this system, has grown amongst the students on campuses.” (William David Angel, The International Law of Youth Rights: Source Documents and Commentary, p.975)

The need for joint action by NUSAS and SANSCO led the organisations to convene a weeklong meeting at Rhodes University, Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. An estimated 600 black and white students from 129 tertiary education institutions converged to deliberate the formation of a non racial student body from 1-6 September 1991. After a week of deliberations SANSCO and NUSAS merged to form the South African Students Congress (SASCO). At the end of the gathering SASCO was formally launched on 6 September 1991. Thus, the establishment of SASCO answered questions about whether it was possible to establish a single non-racial progressive student organization in education tertiary institutions.

Amongst those who played a significant role in the formation of the organisation was Robinson Ramaite who became the first President of SASCO, Kgomotso Masebelanga who became the first Secretary of the organisation,Steven Silver, Mike Koyana,David Makhura, Mfundo Nkuhlu and many others.

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